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Orthodox lay presidency at the Eucharist?

Reuters has a dispatch from Athens on the difficulties the Greek financial collapse is causing the Orthodox Church. The article entitled "Crisis proves a curse for Greece's Orthodox Church" will appear in various forms in newspapers and websites this weekend and I encourage you to read it, as it provides a strong account of the hardships facing the Church. However, a GetReligion reader, Dominic Foo, was struck by one section of the article. He wrote:

I find it incredibly hard to believe that an Eastern Orthodox Church would permit lay celebration of the Eucharist, unless of course, this is merely sloppy journalistic reporting and what is permitted is not "mass" but a prayer service.

He was questioning this section of the story:

To cover the shortage of priests, some bishops are permitting laymen to take services. These volunteers receive no state wages and don't wear the characteristic vestments.

For instance, a retired army officer recently started holding mass at Avantas, a village close to the eastern border with Turkey, said Father Irinaios. "Priests in small villages retire or pass away and there is nobody to replace them," he said. "We are going to have a huge problem."

If Reuters is correct in its reporting, this is highly significant development. In the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions it is inconceivable that a lay person would be permitted by a bishop to celebrate the Eucharist as the administration and celebration of the sacraments is the essence of the priesthood. For Roman Catholics this teaching is set down in a number of formal statements and encyclicals: Lumen Gentium 28; De ordinatione episcopi, presbyterorum et diaconorum 2; 6; 12.

For the Orthodox lay presidency is a non-starter. The doctrinal confessions most accepted in the Orthodox world, The Confession written by Dosietheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (1672) and The Orthodox Confession written by Peter Mogilas, Metropolitan of Kiev (1643) state the Eucharist may be celebrated only by a "lawful" priest.

In my corner of the church world, the issue of lay celebration of the Eucharist has the potential to supplant the fights over homosexuality. The Diocese of Sydney -- the most influential evangelical diocese in the Anglican Communion -- supports  allowing lay people licensed by the bishop to celebrate the Lord's Supper. The diocese has debated this issue for almost a generation and prepared a number of theological papers in support of its views.

One clue to the debate is the use of the phrase "Lord's Supper" rather than Mass by Sydney Anglicans. Their understanding of what takes place in Holy Communion is very different than that of High Church Anglicans, not to mention the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, the Archbishop of Sydney Dr. Peter Jensen, has so far declined to implement the diocesan synod's request as the wider Australian church -- and Anglican Communion does not agree with this innovation.

If the Greek Orthodox Church is allowing lay celebration of the Eucharist this would be a break with tradition. For a religion reporter this would be great news -- I have visions of a pan-Orthodox council being called (allowing me a trip to Greece on my editor's dime.)

Perhaps something less dramatic, but still highly significant is taking place. Has some form of Liberation theology arisen in Greece? That would be news! In marginalized or deprived communities where a priest is not present to preside at the Eucharist, such as in Latin American base communities, Leonardo Boff and other radical theologians have proposed holding a eucharist-like fellowship meal as an admittedly less than adequate substitute for the Eucharist.

Or, as is most likely, the Reuters reporter was confused or his article was mistranslated. I'm afraid I won't be jetting off to Greece this summer as I suspect the liturgy being used at services where no priest is present is the Typica or Reader's Service.

While the Typica may not be common in areas where there is a settled Orthodox presence, it can be found in places like the American South or Africa where there are new Orthodox congregations but no resident clergy. Here is a link to a Greenville, NC Orthodox Church that explains the value of Lay-led Services.

While this Reuters story focuses on the effects of Greece's economic implosion on the Orthodox Church, the statement about lay led masses should be addressed. If wrong, I would hope it would be corrected. If right, then there is a major story here that has so far gone unreported.

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